The Thirsty Beagle: On Durant, Westbrook and OKC joining the real pro sports fraternity

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

On Durant, Westbrook and OKC joining the real pro sports fraternity

Well folks, my summer blogcation is over.

I've had a little R&R from posting the past little while as I worked on organization and publicity for Oklahoma City Craft Beer Week and then transitioned into my annual summer family road trip to Disney World, and then spent time with the family over the long weekend.

Now I'm ready to dive back in. But I'm not going to talk about beer just yet. First, I want to take a little diversion into the world of sports.

This post will be about Kevin Durant, but not really about No. 35.

The truth is, the time to discuss Durant is over.

Really, there's no point. There's no solace earned by breaking down why he made the decision he made, or hyper-analyzing what he said or didn't say.

In five days the situation went from a "longtime friend" saying Durant was 90 percent certain he would stay in Oklahoma City, to a person "with knowledge of Durant's thought process" saying Durant left because he was sick of playing with Russell Westbrook.

I can tell you right now, even if you could make sense of all the noise and unnamed sources, it doesn't really matter.

And I know from personal sports-fan experience. I was born and raised in Toronto and have been a Raptors fan since Day 1 of the franchise in 1995. Us Raptors fans were dumped not once, but twice by supposed franchise players.

Most recently it was Chris Bosh, who made it clear he would not re-sign with the Raptors when he hit unrestricted free agency. Bosh decided to form a triumvirate with LeBron James and Dwayne Wade in Miami. The Raptors at least took advantage of a sign-and-trade and got a pair of draft picks (one of them ended up being Jonas Valanciunas) in the deal. As Bosh was heading out the door, he said this to Toronto fans:

"Know that this was my toughest decision, mostly because Toronto has been so great to me. I've loved every minute here and I just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart."

Sound sort of familiar?

Before Bosh, Raptors fans suffered through a thoroughly messy Vince Carter exit. Now, I'm not saying Bosh nor Carter were the type of player Durant is, but if you followed the NBA in the 1999 to 2002 era, you know Carter was an insane freak of a basketball player. I mean, just watch this:

Carter became an NBA and global superstar in a city with a reputation as an outpost where you supposedly couldn't get people to want to play.

Sound sort of familiar?

Carter soured on the franchise after six-and-a-half years, and most Toronto fans believe he actually started tanking in games, including refusing to dunk. For years after his departure, Toronto fans booed him lustily whenever he returned.

The Raptors were forced to move Carter a couple months into the 2004 season as losses piled up. They shipped him to the Nets for two journeymen, Alonzo Mourning (who refused to report to Toronto, forcing the team to pay him $10 million to buy out his contract) and two draft picks.

The league knew the Raptors had to unload him, and thus the team had no leverage. Essentially, they lost one of the most dynamic and influential players in the league, right in the middle of his prime, for pretty much nothing.

Sound sort of familiar?

So why am I telling you all this? Because, OKC, this is your real-deal "Welcome to pro sports" moment. Very rare is the pro athlete who truly plays for the city. Durant was not playing for Oklahoma City. He was playing for the Thunder and for his paycheck. He was playing to win and have fun.

He probably felt like he could win more and have more fun in Golden State. If I had to guess, I'd put that at the heart of his decision.

But what about poor Oklahoma City, left to pick itself up in the aftermath of Durant's decision? The truth is Durant didn't care enough about Oklahoma City to stay here. If he really did, he would have stayed.

But guess what? Tough luck, OKC. That's pro sports. You've really had your initiation now, so welcome to the pro sports fraternity, where it doesn't always work out. In fact, it works out far less than it doesn't.

Oklahoma City has been lucky enough to live in some some of pro sports dream world the past several years. Follow a team for 20 or 30 years, and you're bound to have many ups and downs, several versions of the team; an ocean's current of players gliding in and out of town each season like the tide.

There may not be another Durant, but 10 years from now, there will be a new star in Oklahoma City, a new anchor. It's the natural progression of pro sports. You'll rally around the next guy. You'll rally around a bunch of young fighters who scrap to make the playoffs. It's how pro sports work.

You have to play the hand you're dealt if you want to be a fan of the team, because you're from this city and you're not leaving.

Unlike a certain lanky jump shooter. But like I said, this is not really about Durant. He's gone and not coming back. What I really want to talk about is what we can learn from the Bosh and Carter examples as it applies to Westbrook.

For starters, I like Westbrook -- and not just because he's the guy who's still on the team. After all, he might not be for long.

I like Westbrook's fire. He will straight up attempt to destroy anyone who stands in his way. If there's one person who would actually relish the chance to try winning without Durant -- just to prove you shouldn't underestimate him -- it's Westbrook.

So I could totally see Westbrook playing out the next season and then signing long-term with the Thunder. But...

The Raptors thought they could get Bosh to re-sign, too. They waited too long and got scraps in return. The Thunder waited on Durant, and because they couldn't do a sign-and-trade, got absolutely nothing in return.

Sam Presti absolutely cannot let Westbrook walk for nothing. So, that leaves essentially three viable options:

1. Westbrook gives you an ironclad blood promise that he will play out the 2016-17 season and then re-sign long-term as the face of the franchise.

2. Westbrook doesn't give you an ironclad blood promise that he will re-sign, and you trade him before this next season starts -- heck even this summer to just get it over with.

3. Westbrook doesn't give you a guarantee and you wait to see how the season plays out before dealing him.

Option No. 1 is obviously best for Thunder fans at this point. Westbrook is really good, and there are some good young pieces around him -- you can do some stuff with him running the show. You don't win 65 games, but you maybe can win 50-55 and still be a playoff regular.

Option No. 2 makes the most sense from a business perspective. If you're not sure Westbrook will re-sign, ship him off while the gettin's good and hope to land a franchise-ish player in return.

Option No. 3 is the worst of all choices, and immediately puts you in a lose-lose situation. If you embark on the season with Westbrook on board, and things go well, how do you break up the team as they're looking like a play-off lock? You probably can't, and then you risk a Durant replay with Westbrook walking.

If you keep Westbrook and things go south -- it becomes clear the team likely won't make the playoffs -- now you have to move him and everyone knows it, and you've lost all your leverage. You end up in the Vince Carter situation, getting a lousy collection of bit parts and low-end draft picks.

I can tell you, all three of the Bosh, Carter and Durant situations suck, and OKC would do well to avoid all of them.

My gut says Presti won't end up with a repeat of Durant if he can help it, and he's smart enough to know that the best Westbrook trade is one that maximizes return.

Now, do I think Westbrook will give this ironclad promise to stay? Not really. There aren't too many, or any, players who do that type of thing anymore. So my money is on Westbrook being gone before the season begins.

Kind of hard to believe it could go this way for the Thunder -- moving immediately from championship to lottery contender within a few months time.

But that is pro sports.

Sometimes you just have to ride the waves until the tide comes back in.

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